The struggle in defense of traditional marriage is not over. The court rulings virtually guarantee a stream of additional lawsuits as federal benefits for same-sex married couples come into potential conflict with state laws and constitutions banning same-sex marriage, and as those couples move from state to state. The rulings also guarantee that there will be state-by-state battles to affirm marriage as only between a man and a woman. It is clear, however, that the high court will not affirm the traditional understanding of marriage, and it is clear that another major social experiment is underway as same-sex marriages now stand in 12 states and counting.
There will be far-reaching implications to these decisions, decisions likely to impact both businesses (particularly benefits) and churches. In those states where gay marriage is the law, it’s not unimaginable that efforts will be made to silence critics — including the Church — by labeling their criticism “hate speech” and “bigotry.”
There are many other questions that will be answered over time: How many homosexual couples will actually avail themselves of this right? Will other aspects of traditional marriage be redefined, and will the courts inevitably support polygamous and other unions now that the marriage standard has been breached?
For our Church leaders, however, now is the time to take stock. Without throwing in the towel on the traditional marriage fight, it has been clear for years that the real crisis is not about same-sex marriage, but about marriage itself. The persistent divorce rate for Catholics (the same as for the general population) and the related crisis in annulments, the decline in sacramental marriages (and baptisms), the data that suggests even Mass-attending Catholics are abandoning the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage, and contraception usage among Catholic couples point to a much broader crisis in understanding what the Church teaches about marriage.
This is about much more than marriage preparation. Helping adults understand what the Church teaches and why, and helping them to put this faith into practice — as Pope Francis continually exhorts us — remains our fundamental challenge.
We are rapidly approaching a time when Catholic teaching on marriage will be a minority opinion, perhaps even a despised opinion. The Church should be examining now whether civil marriage and sacramental marriage should be disentwined (as is the case in many other countries), so that the values and witness of sacramental marriage are upheld and distinguished from what civil marriage is becoming.
Without throwing in the towel on the traditional marriage fight, it has been clear for years that the real crisis is not about same-sex marriage, but marriage itself.
Too easily forgotten is the need for the Church to affirm and support those gay Catholics who are seeking to live as the Church teaches, and who now may feel even more isolated.
Ultimately, same-sex marriage is only one symptom of a broader change in how marriage is viewed — its purpose regarding children, the understanding of monogamy and the value of its permanence. For the sake of the common good, Catholics must not give up the struggle in defense of traditional marriage. For the sake of sacramental marriage, the Church must mobilize its resources for a much broader catechesis as it prepares those who remain in its fold to be a minority once again — strangers in a strange land.